The Aaronovitch Code By Dan Hind

15 July, 2011 — The Return of the Public

I’d more or less put David Aaronovitch out of my mind recently, what with the paywall and everything. But he turned up on Newsnight last night as part of the programme’s efforts to erase memories of the previous night’s now-notorious ‘ask the public’ episode.

(As an aside, it is interesting that the media have two main ways of talking about the media. Either they ask the public what they think about the media, an approach of limited use or interest if the media aren’t very good at telling us about what’s going on in the media. Or they talk to other media professionals in a big huddle and agree that mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, and that we should all just fuck off.)

Anyway, there was Aaronovitch along with Jason Cowley, the editor of the New Statesman, and the former head of Wall Street Journal Europe, Patience Wheatcroft, chatting away. I can’t really remember what Aaronovitch said, something about newspapers being a good thing in general and the Times being wizard in particular, I think. But it did remind me that a few years ago he published rather a bad book about conspiracy theories called Voodoo Histories. In it he trotted out pretty much all the shoddy arguments used to discredit off-piste political curiosity.

Conspiracy theories are what maladjusted weirdos occupy their time with. They are a kind of bedtime story for the mentally unwell and the disappointed. Order and significance in a meaningless universe, all that. He wrote the book, he said, because he believed that ‘conspiracies aren’t powerful’. To prove his point he ingeniously ignored all the many historical conspiracies for which evidence exists and which were powerful. Even more ingeniously he ignored the most consequential conspiracy theory of recent years, the US state’s story that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. A conspiracy theory cooked up to further an international conspiracy to invade a country might be worth mentioning in a book about conspiracy theories, you might have thought. As I say, Voodoo Histories is a bad book.

Now I am not about to start scoring cheap points against Aaronovitch in light of the metastasizing scandal at News International. He was working for a newspaper whose newsroom wasn’t all that far away from the News of the World. He presumably shared a canteen with various hackers and crooks while he was writing Voodoo Histories. Like all his colleagues on the Times he missed the fact that the tabloid was host to what looks like quite a powerful conspiracy. So what? We’ve all made mistakes. Unless you are in the room it is hard to know for sure what is going on. We can’t spend our lives in a frenzy of suspicion.

On the other hand, conspiracies obviously happen. They take place in large and powerful institutions – they are sometimes run by senior managers in said institutions – and they can be of enormous significance. A criminal conspiracy can even intimidate and seduce politicians and the police. We don’t know exactly what happened in News International yet. But what if it turns out that large numbers of people in News International and their hirelings in organized crime and the police were engaged in a vast conspiracy to manipulate the political process in pursuit of their own nefarious agenda?

Voodoo Histories is going to need another chapter. In it Aaronovitch can explain that, actually, conspiracies are quite powerful sometimes, even if they are hard to spot at the time. In fact they can take place yards away from a man making fun of conspiracy theorists.

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